This image shows a healthy adult bimaternal mouse (born to two mothers) with offspring of her own. "We have made several findings in the past by combining reproduction and regeneration, so we tried to find out whether more normal mice with two female parents, or even mice with two male parents, could be produced using haploid embryonic stem cells with gene deletions", says co-senior author Qi Zhou.
Using a mash-up of stem cells and cloning technology, a team in Beijing claims to have generated mice with same-sex parents.
"In doing so they were able to artificially overcome some of the usual incompatibility between parents of the same sex, meaning they were able to create relatively healthy offspring with two mothers, and somewhat unhealthy offspring from two fathers that died shortly after birth".
Some reptiles, amphibians and fish can reproduce with one parent of the same sex, but it is extremely hard for mammals to do so- even with the help of the most advanced technology. The scientists removed three imprinted regions from the DNA of a female ESC and injected them into the egg of a female partner to produce offspring from two moms. By deleting these imprinted genes from immature eggs, researchers have produced bimaternal mice-mice with two mothers-in the past.
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Just as impressively, the created mice were able to live to adulthood and have offspring of their own.
The breakthrough came in the form of 29 mice successfully born to same-sex (female) parents.
"One possible approach is using "epigenetic-editing" on haploid stem cells, essentially reprogramming the DNA of one parent so it looks like that of the opposite sex without altering any genetic sequence". These embryos were transferred along with placental material to surrogate mothers, who carried them to term.
These pups survived 48 hours after birth, but the researchers are planning to improve the process so that the bipaternal mice live to adulthood.
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To generate mouse pups from two male parents, the researchers had to delete seven imprinted regions.
"To consider exploring similar technology for human application in the near future is implausible".
Li notes that there are still obstacles to using these methods in other mammals, including the need to identify problematic imprinted genes that are unique to each species and concerns for the offspring that don't survive or that experience severe abnormalities. They do hope, however, to explore these techniques in other research animals in the future.
The process used at the Chinese Academy of Sciences involved "substantial genetic modification" meaning it is "unlikely to be useful in humans for now". "The defects in bimaternal mice [shown in previous research] can be eliminated and bipaternal reproduction barriers in mammals can also be crossed".
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